Adios, and the Ladies Who Deliver “The Lunch”

IMAG4183There are these two women who deliver lunch every day at ThyssenKrupp.

One is tall and thin. Twenty-something. Calm and smiling. The other is about my age. She wears a bob and a frantic look on her face – as if, like the Mad Hatter, she’s always running late.

Each has six or so white paper bags dangling from each arm. Some containing fish. Others chicken. Some of the students will eat their lunch before class. Others after. Never during. No matter how many times I assure them it is ok. And always, always in the cafeteria. Never at their desks.

As a rule, Spanish people set aside time for their meals – even if it is only a half hour. My students laugh watching me pull an apple from my bag at the end of class. I will eat it walking to the metro – a dead giveaway that I am an American.

This is because, as a rule, Spanish people do not rush. Every ex-pat I know voices the same frustration with Spanish people walking – often five across, blocking the entire sidewalk – slowly. It seems to be the one cultural difference they never learn to accept.

Perhaps this is why I notice this woman. The one with the pageboy and the panicked look. Because her speed, as she delivers “the lunch,” seems more like that of a New Yorker than a Spaniard.

I do not know her name. Either of their names. Or if either of them speaks English. We greet one another each day with a smile and “hola,” “buenas dias” or “hasta luego.” I’m not quite sure when this started, but it has become our ritual. “Ours” as it is mine and hers, and “ours” as it is specific to us – I do not see her engaging with other teachers, or perhaps I do not see them engaging with her.

Sometimes they are pulling into or out of the parking lot in a grey, beater hatchback, in which case, we just wave.

Today was my last day at ThyssenKrupp. I have been teaching here since last September. The company, like most companies offering English lessons, breaks for July and August, and part of June and September, to accommodate the summer schedule – a truncated day with most employees leaving at 3 and working not at all on Fridays.

Today my class insists we go to a nearby bar. That I eat tapas with them – calamares (fried squid), jamon (ham) and huevos rotos (“broken eggs” over fried potatoes with ham) – and “take a drink.”

This is the group that sang Happy Birthday to me on October 20 and bought me a gift. The group that wanted to know the details of my every trip. The group I watched “16 Candles” with, without subtitles, at the end of last semester.

Yesterday I said goodbye to my other class. The group that talked about relationships, divorce and finding love again. About weight struggles, religion and the most appropriate names for primary and secondary sex characteristics.

I’ve taught them why “normal” and “not normal” are loaded words. That we say “silverware,” not “tools.” “Outside” and not “in the street.” (I explain the difference by recalling the time my brother laid down in the street because another kid dared him to, and my mother yelling at him to “get out of the street.”) We’ve watched clips of the Macy’s Day Parade together and talked about Donald Trump … a lot.

They’ve taught me about Spanish politics, explaining how it is that the country still doesn’t have a president, and the tradition of eating 12 grapes at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

We part ways, yesterday and today, with the traditional kiss on each cheek. R. and I say goodbye twice, exchanging “American-style” hugs. E. invites me to her house for lunch, to meet her family, before I leave. I am deeply moved.

I tell them that some days, being with them was my only social interaction. That some days, being with them was the best part of my day. We agree they will let me know if they are in the United States, and I will let them know when I return to visit Madrid.

I drop off the attendance book and dry-erase marker in the Human Resources office for the last time, and return my badge on the way out. I take a photograph of the gate which has always eerily reminded me of the gates of Nazi concentration camps. Sometimes, I half expect to see the words, “Arbeit macht frei.” I once admitted this to my students and was shocked to learn they had the same response.

Walking to the train I hear a horn beeping. It sounds like it belongs to a go-cart. I turn to see the grey hatchback and the ladies who deliver lunch.

“Adios,” they call out, smiling and waving. Not hasta luego – see you later. Adios – goodbye.

“Adios,” I call back. Smiling and waving.

 

 

Not 10-Years-Old

rxHalloween 1979. I am 10-years-old. And too sick to go trick-or-treating.

In my diary, the one I have received earlier in month for my birthday – covered in blue flowers, with a lock, and the smell of old-lady perfume – I write, “I still have the ammonia.”

My mother cannot bear to tell me it is pneumonia, not ammonia that has me walking to the bathroom on tiptoes, holding my head, because full steps hurt too much.

This is not the first time. For three years in a row I have been diagnosed with either pneumonia, bronchitis or both. Always at this time of year – the season of ghosts and goblins, copious amounts of candy, the addition of one hour, and my birthday.

And then one day…nothing.

Seems I have outgrown my respiratory weariness.

Until now.

I am walking up the stairs of the metro station at Puerta Del Toledo. My head is spinning. My eyes are dry. My throat, itchy and sore. I felt this coming on at lunch yesterday but had hoped to ward it off by jumping into bed early that night. I have already been sick twice this season.

But this time is different. I feel it in my lungs.

They are heavy. It is as if I can feel each alveola filling with air. I walk to my student’s home, trying to will the illness away. By 1 p.m. I am canceling my Spanish lesson and sending texts in hopes of finding others to take on my evening responsibilities.

I receive a deluge of responses, all with the same message – “Go to the doctor.”

A friend of mine, a native Madrileno, offers to make an appointment for me.

“Tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. Text me when you arrive.”

“Does the doctor speak English?” I ask.

“I don’t know.”

A little more than 12 hours later, I text her.

“Call me if you need help,” she writes.

Somehow I have gotten it in my head that she is meeting me here, but clearly I am confused. She is at work and I am fuzzy and unclear about pretty much everything.

“Okay,” I write back.

I check in, more or less without incident. And at 9:30, the doctor herself calls me into the exam room.

“Habla Ingles?” I ask, crossing both fingers and toes.

“No.”

I burst into tears.

“Lo siento. Lo siento. (I’m sorry. I’m sorry.),” I squeak.

I am sick. I am overwhelmed. I am scared.

I am 10-years-old, holding my head and walking on my toes, missing Halloween.

And yet clearly I am not. I am 47 and in Madrid, typing back and forth with the doctor using Google Translate – telling her about my symptoms and my medical history.

She takes my temperature. She listens to my lungs. She checks my oxygen levels.

No fever. My lungs are clear. But she wants to run a blood test to find out why I keep getting sick.

I do not understand what she is saying, even with the translator. Probably because this idea is foreign to me.

I remember being in the emergency room in Chicago. Once a heart attack was ruled out, they sent me home.

“So what is it?”

Shrug. “Not a heart attack.”

The doctor calls my friend the Madrileno, who translates.

I get a prescription for ibuprofen and lozenges, as well as for blood work. The doctor schedules an appointment for a follow-up visit – with her English-speaking colleague.

I look at my watch. I have been in her office for an hour. A line of patients sit waiting in red chairs in the hallway.

I go downstairs and have my blood taken, then walk to the train – gingerly, nearly on my toes. On the way, I call one of my girlfriends to tell her “it is not the ammonia.”

“Good,” she says. She tells me that I have done a brave and scary thing — navigating the healthcare system of a foreign country in a language that I don’t quite know.

“Guess you can handle more than you think,” she says.

Guess I am not 10-years-old.